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Year in Review: Narrow defeat for Sonoma County parks measure likely to prompt another try

Sonoma County voters came tantalizingly close in 2016 to approving a sales tax measure that arguably would have led to the most sweeping changes to the county’s parks system in its 50-year history.

Measure J supporters said the half-cent sales tax measure, which would have generated an estimated $95 million over a 10-year term, was needed to fund an overhaul of the parks system, including a vast expansion of public lands offering new recreational opportunities.

Under this vision, county-owned properties, including those with jaw-dropping views along the Sonoma Coast, would fully open to the public. Miles of new trails would come online, amenities such as campgrounds would be installed and aging infrastructure at existing parks would be spruced up or repaired.

Those lofty plans stalled after Measure J went came up just shy of the required two-thirds majority in the November election. It failed by 1,082 votes out of nearly 69,800 cast on the initiative.

“Obviously, it’s a shame that it didn’t pass and that it came so close,” Caryl Hart, the county’s Regional Parks director, said this month.

Given the narrow margin of defeat, Hart and other Measure J supporters are now considering whether to go back to voters in 2017 with another tax measure.

Measure J marked the first time voters were asked to support a dedicated tax funding source for the county’s parks system since its creation in 1967 with the opening of Doran Regional Park in Bodega Bay. Today, the network spans 56 parks, trails and beaches, totaling 12,000 acres.

The measure’s supporters said the new funding was critical for making park improvements and to fully open some sites to the public, including nearly 4,000 acres of land owned by the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

The initiative’s sweeping expenditure plan touched on all corners of the county. A major focus was 1,769-acre Tolay Lake Regional Park in Petaluma, which was set aside by the Open Space District in 2005 but has limited public use. Hart said the park likely won’t open until late 2017 and, even then, the property will remain largely undeveloped.

Hart said she likely will ask county supervisors to consider putting another sales tax measure for parks on the June 2017 ballot. This time, she plans to ask that the measure apply countywide. Only residents living in unincorporated areas of the county voted on Measure J because the new tax would have applied only to purchases made outside cities.

Hart reiterated her belief that Measure J lost in part because of the perceived inequity of asking only some in Sonoma County to support raising taxes for parks that are enjoyed by all. She also pinned blame on the The Press Democrat for editorializing against the measure on the grounds the county needs to focus more attention on reducing employee pension costs before raising taxes.

A countywide ballot measure would require approval from all of the cities, which likely would seek a share of the revenue for their own parks. It also would limit the proposed amount to an eighth-cent sales tax increase, unless county officials were to decide to seek legislative approval to raise the sales tax in Cotati above the state’s 10 percent cap.

“It comes down to working with cities to see if there is a formula that works for them,” Hart said.

With less of the tax increase dedicated to regional parks, Hart said the expenditure plan for the proposed measure would have to be scaled back. She said the No. 1 priority should be opening lands transferred to county parks from the Open Space District.

“People learned a lot and saw what happened with Measure J,” said Hart. “They really need to get out and vote for this if they want to make it happen.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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